Best practices for producing category-leading reports, according to 3 content experts

Brands love creating content that’s snackable and shareable—but when you’re only focused on quick wins, it can be easy to forget about the long game. That’s why it’s smart to invest time and resources into generating a comprehensive, category-leading asset like a research report. Not only does this help affirm your credibility, authority, and authenticity, but it also builds a deep reserve of stats and takeaways that you can continue to draw on in your short-form content.

What does it take to devise, design, and deliver an impactful long-form asset that your industry peers will share far and wide? At our latest digital roundtable event, we spoke with experts from three leading brands—Salesforce, The Zebra, and SAP Customer Experience—who have taken the science of successful long-form storytelling and turned it into an art. Here’s what they had to say.

“Original research gives us something to say in a world where there’s already too much being said.” —Heike Young, Salesforce

The first rule of long-form content is simple: don’t add your voice to a crowded forum unless you have something new and valuable to contribute. To identify a strong topic, it’s important to stay informed on the conversation and empathize with your audience. “Start with a pain point,” Young advises. “What’s top of mind, what’s in the news, what longtail keywords or queries are being searched?”

The biggest rewards often come from an annual report that establishes your organization’s leadership and expertise, and can be repeated—like “The State of Marketing” and “The State of Sales” reports Young and her team produce each year.

“Look for stuff that nobody’s shared before and tie it to what’s going on.” —Nicole Beck, The Zebra

We’ve all been trained not to research with a confirmation bias, but when identifying a buzzworthy topic for your next long-form asset, it’s okay to look for the money stats.

Compile a list of “dream stats” that would create the most compelling narrative, and then design survey questions or methodologies that will help you find them. Of course, stay honest; let the research determine your conclusions, rather than selectively zooming in on the findings that support your narrative.

“Your data gets interesting when you can tie it to your customers’ experience in a way that adds to the conversation and builds natural insights.” —Jack Dyson, SAP Customer Experience

Dream stats might be an effective starting point, and quantitative reporting can be a reliable and repeatable content series for brands to embark on, but numbers alone can never tell the whole story.

Often, the best angles are the most human. It’s important to move beyond the stats and show the real-world implications for readers. “Stats are a bridge into the qualitative, a bridge into customer stories, commonly-faced pain points,” says Dyson.

“Be laser-focused on a particular audience and what matters to them, and the channels and touchpoints they like to engage with.” —Heike Young, Salesforce

While a long-form content series may be repeatable, often the context is not. Current events, social and economic issues, and conversations taking place in the public sphere yield new angles that are top-of-mind for companies and consumers, and wise marketers will pay close attention to these trends.

This leads to one of the biggest benefits of investing in long-form content: the shorter spinoff assets that can be produced as a result. These can range from soundbites shared on Twitter to executive thought leadership published on LinkedIn to smaller reports that add value around a specific topic or vertical.

“It’s all about authenticity and authority. We want media reporters to know we’re legitimate.” —Nicole Beck, The Zebra

If brands are breaking news, then they need to be investing in a fact-based, journalistic process for their research, writing, and analysis—and if possible, they should be investing in actual journalists. Not only do they have the ability to take data and turn it into a compelling narrative, but they can also see the novel angles that truly differentiate the story.

“We have a really robust in-house team who are making sure that’s all really above board,” says Beck, who’s responsible for “The State of Auto Insurance,” an annual report from The Zebra. “Trust is huge with us; the media knows that they can trust our numbers.”

“There are so many different ways to do it, so I would just make it a quarterly goal to try something.” —Jack Dyson, SAP Customer Experience

Once you have a plan in place, the best thing you can do is try it out. Dyson, who oversees the “SAP Customer Experience Gold Guide” and other annual reports, suggests maintaining a “slush fund” for innovation and experimentation. You need to give life to your ideas, try different things, and iterate on what makes the greatest impact.

“Have a go, see what it looks like,” he recommends. “If you’re a two-person organization, sit down with your opposite numbers and work it out, follow your competitors and see what they’ve done that you think is cool, and try it out in a different way. See how it fits.”

Your brand has something to say. Now you just need to discover how to say it in a way that hasn’t been done before—ideally in a long-form piece of content.

For more advice on how to use proprietary data to tell interesting stories, watch our digital roundtable.

Image: Zbigniew Dziok/Shutterstock

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